OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to visit the territories today and Friday for the first time since the 2015 election campaign and since the abrupt resignation of his former Liberal cabinet minister Hunter Tootoo, now an independent MP for Nunavut.
Trudeau will begin his northern trip by meeting with representatives from Canada’s national Inuit organization in Iqaluit today, moving ahead with a process announced late last year that brings government officials and indigenous leaders to the same table.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos will also participate in the discussions, along with Bennett’s parliamentary secretary Yvonne Jones.
Trudeau has vowed to participate in the talks – formally referred to as an Inuit-to-Crown partnership committee – at least once a year.
Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says he is hopeful that terms of reference can be signed today with the prime minister to develop a plan for further work.
He says Trudeau’s meeting shows respect for the need to work directly with representatives of indigenous peoples as opposed to simply provinces or territories.
“It is an exciting time and we hope this will be the start of a relationship where we can create joint priority areas and then work on those priority areas together in definitive periods of time so that we can both see success,” he said.
Obed has been personally outspoken in his call for all politicians, Inuit and otherwise, to confront social challenges including the sexual abuse of children in some indigenous communities – the subject of an investigation by The Canadian Press.
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Obed is not a stranger to intergenerational trauma; his own father struggled with alcoholism after falling victim to sexual and physical abuse at residential school.
He said the abuse problem will likely be raised during today’s discussions as part of discussions around missing and murdered indigenous women, improving Inuit mental wellness and overcoming historical and intergenerational trauma.
“It is my hope that this table will bring social justice in many ways and will at least shine a light on some of the challenges we’ve faced that we have not been able to overcome and the federal government has not helped in substantive ways in the past,” he said.
Iqaluit’s mayor Madeleine Redfern said she is glad there is political momentum to address sexual abuse, noting it “absolutely contributes” to community violence, mental health struggles and suicide.
“We can’t shy away from this issue,” she said. “As difficult and painful and as horrible as it is, the only way that we are going to be able to truly address this is by being honest that it happens and (asking) what support and resources are required not only to help the victim but also the perpetrators who are themselves … often victims of past sexual abuse.”
Redfern praised Trudeau for visiting Iqaluit, noting it is critical for him to witness first-hand challenges including changes to permafrost and the impacts of climate change.
Later today, the prime minister is scheduled to sit down with Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna.
He also plans to visit Yellowknife on Friday to hold a town hall meeting with the public.
A key challenge for the Liberal government in the months to come will be moving ahead on a pledge to develop an Arctic strategy in partnership with northerners, territorial governments and indigenous peoples.
The premiers of the three territories have criticized Ottawa’s moratorium on Arctic drilling, suggesting the decision was made unilaterally.
The territories no longer have a representative in the federal cabinet. Former fisheries minister Tootoo admitted he was in a “consensual but inappropriate” relationship that led to his abrupt decision in May to quit the party and seek help for an alcohol addiction.